Defies All Odds
Model and Instagram sensation Winnie Harlow is quite new to the fashion industry, but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t already left her mark on it in a phenomenal way. With over 5 million Instagram followers, and her recent appearance on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, it’s clear that her unstoppable drive will continue to ascend her all the way to the top!
“Confidence doesn’t eliminate insecurities, and insecurities don’t mean you’re not confident.” 24-year-old Winnie Harlow lives by this self-created mantra, but make no mistake—it’s not her chronic skin condition, vitiligo, that’s the source of any insecurity. At first glance, people are immediately drawn to Harlow’s skin; naturally, it’s impossible not to notice. Vitiligo causes patches of skin on a person’s body to lose pigment, resulting in a striking, unique, and beautiful look. Harlow has grown accustomed to the stares, and refutes anyone who tries to tear her down for her condition. She is past the days of embarrassment over her skin, but her mantra holds true for other reasons. In general, she believes that people will always have insecurities, and that that is okay; it is possible to have them and also be confident, just as she is. The self-assuredness and inspiring words are what draws people to the young model, as she often speaks out on rejecting the idea that difference is something to be afraid of. In an Instagram post on the star’s page awhile back, she fights the idea that she’s “brave” for living with vitiligo, claiming, “[I’m] a confident normal a** human, not some being who ‘must be so brave to go outside looking like that’ looking like what, myself?” She adds further down the post: “Because I don’t look like you it’s so incredible to be confident? I don’t want to look like you, I’m gorgeous.”
Winnie Harlow, born Chantelle Brown-Young in Toronto, Canada, began to show signs of vitiligo at four years old. It first appeared on her stomach, and began to spread to her arms, legs, and face. In school, she was subjected to the cruelty of classmates, who called her harmful names such as “zebra” and “cow.” She tried her best to fit in, sitting with the “cool kids” at lunch and skipping class. No matter what she did, the mocking ensued, and the harassment became too much. She contemplated suicide, but thankfully, decided to drop out of high school instead, and was home schooled. It saved her life, and Harlow doesn’t regret it at all. “[It] was possibly the best thing that could have happened, because I found a rejuvenated sense of self. I learned to love who I am despite what anyone would say about or to me. This gave me the courage to really stand up to anyone or any obstacle in my life,” she shares.
As she began to love herself for who she was, Harlow began to look towards the future with excitement. She wanted to become an entertainment journalist, but people around her saw something that she had yet to realize herself. After an interview with friend and Toronto photographer Shannon Boodram, who pushed her to pursue a career in modeling, Harlow began to build herself a fan base on social media, hoping to catch an agency’s attention. What ended up coming out of it was something far better than she could have imagined.
During the casting of America’s Next Top Model in 2014, Winnie encouraged her Instagram followers to repeatedly tag legendary former model and producer Tyra Banks. Trying to grab the attention of Banks via social media seems like a long shot, but miraculously, it worked! After Banks was impressed by Winnie’s photos on her account, she got in contact with her to join the cast of America’s Next Top Model! Soon enough, she was on set, shooting for Cycle 21 of the show as the first-ever contestant with vitiligo. She was eventually eliminated off of the show, but that didn’t mean that her career hit a dead end. In fact, it was only a couple of months after the show that her first big opportunity arrived. Nick Knight, renowned photographer responsible for directing Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” music video, reached out to Winnie via email, requesting her for a photoshoot in London. At the time, 19-year-old Winnie had no idea who Knight was, but after a quick search unveiled how talented he was, she didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. She worked with him to complete a photo/video shoot for SHOWstudio, which she says helped her career really take flight, rather than ANTM: “[My success] started after the show, because that really didn’t do anything for my career…I thought, ‘That’s going to be a career starter.’ But it was really a reality TV show. That’s not what I signed up for.”
Following her major photography shoot with Nick Knight, Harlow was summoned by even more brands and magazines as her stardom began to rise. In 2014, she appeared in Eminem and Sia’s music video for “Guts Over Fear,” and a year later, landed campaigns for two major brands. Spanish brand Desigual called upon her to be the face of their “Say Something Nice” campaign, and Italian brand Diesel worked with her for their Spring/Summer ’15 campaign, which Nick Knight ended up shooting. That same year she also graced the pages of significant magazines like Glamour, Complex, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony, as well as a feature on Vogue Italia’s website with her own interview and photo shoot!
It seemed that the world was becoming enamored with Winnie and all her glory, including some of her own idols! In April 2016, Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade dropped, with a special cameo from Winnie, who had ironically, almost missed out on this opportunity to be in one of her favorite artists’ works. A lone, “random” email appeared in her inbox one day, requesting her to fly out to New Orleans for a photoshoot. She passed, thinking it was something kind of odd. Later, Beyoncé’s personal assistant reached out to clarify that the star had actually requested Winnie herself, and all it took was that clarification to get her on a plane out to NOLA. As she filmed alongside actress/singer Zendaya, pro tennis player Serena Williams, and others, Harlow felt proud to be there. “I think we were all there because of the same thing… [Bey] wanted strong women in her film. Strong black women.”
Harlow continued to leave a streak of fire that year as she starred in a Sprite commercial, covered the face of Elle Canada, and featured in Swarovski’s ad campaign for their “Crystaldust” collection. She also made another music video appearance in The Black Eyed Pea’s “#WHERE’STHELOVE” featuring The World that year, which aimed to spread a message of world peace. To close up a busy, prosperous year with a bang, she was also featured in BBC’s 100 Women, where she discussed confidence and her determination to keep moving despite what people say.
Fast forward to last year, in 2018, and Harlow’s achievements had doubled and continued to bring her even more recognition and triumph. In April, she nabbed not one but three different covers of Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, where she shone in vibrant colors, and eccentric makeup. In May, she was on the cover of Elle UK, sporting a flashy purple/pink jacket and sparkly green eye shadow. In June, she was on the front of Grazia UK, with bright red lips and glittery gold eyeliner. That Fall also reaped continuous accomplishments for Winnie; she was awarded “Breakthrough Model of the Year” at the Fashion Media Awards in September, proving the fact that she had had quite the fruitful year. However, her greatest prize yet came in the form of an immense opportunity just a few months later. After trying out for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for the second time, she was finally granted her new title as “Victoria’s Secret Angel!” The first time she had tried out for the show in 2017, she was denied, but as she came back with more flair and attitude on the runway last year, she was able to win the seal of approval from casting veteran Edward Razek, guaranteeing her spot in her dream gig.
“This is such a monumental moment in my life and career… I told anyone [who] asked, ‘I want Victoria’s Secret!’”
The show, which premiered on December 2nd but was filmed on November 8th, saw Winnie strutting her stuff on the runway alongside other VS Angels like Kendall Jenner, Taylor Hill, Stella Maxwell, Duckie Thot, and many more.
Harlow has come a long way from being the girl that was bullied in school over her skin. “I am happy with my skin, and I’m proud of my skin, which is why I wear it so boldly,” she expresses. And that she does! In the Winter 2018 issue of V Magazine, she posed topless for the “Glamorama” fashion photo shoot, staring sultrily at the camera as her skin shone. Her career has only picked up its pace as time has gone on, and there’s no doubt that this will be another momentous year for the popular model as she makes new connections and lands more magazine covers! She recently began dating rapper Wiz Khalifa last year, and has made close friendships with celebs like Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Bella Hadid. Keep an eye on this fiery model—she’s not stepping out of the limelight anytime soon!
By Selene Rivera